Security: The Next Bad Thing

You know about vapourware, products that exist only on press releases. But how about a product that protects against a threat that doesn’t exist? The antivirus industry is racing to protect handheld computers from viruses, worms and trojans – at least once those vapours start to materialize.

Not that the threat isn’t real. Popular handheld devices such as Handspring Inc.’s Visor Deluxe and the Palm Inc.’s IIIxe come installed with 8MB of RAM and may run versions of the same software found on less handy devices. Already, PDAs can be carriers for viruses spread through e-mail attachments: An infected attachment is received on a wireless PDA, and when the user does a synchronization with a desktop computer, the infected file passes onto a hard drive, perhaps unnoticed. And as handheld devices become more popular, more powerful and more likely to hold or access confidential information such as chequing accounts, they’ll become more appealing to virus writers.

That’s bad news for PDA users, but it means business for antivirus crusaders. Corp. has unveiled an on-line Wireless Security Center, where for US$29.95 per year, users can purchase a subscription that includes VirusScan for Handhelds, which protects PCs from viruses spread via wireless or infrared data transfers with handhelds. Meanwhile, Symantec Corp. has announced the development of a version of its Norton AntiVirus software created for the Palm OS platform.

Researchers say it’s only a matter of time before viruses targeted to these devices appear “in the wild” – that is, in the computing world where you and your love bugs send e-mail every day. Robert Frances Group’s Adam Braunstein predicts that we’ll see viruses that affect PDAs themselves within the next year. “Wherever there’s a widely popular platform that people use, there’s a virus,” says the senior research analyst at the Westport, Conn.-based company – or at least there will be.